Egypt embarrasses itself again
Egypt embarrasses itself again
Wednesday, August 6,2008 15:52
By From Michele Dunne

From Michele Dunne

As if it were not enough that an Egyptian criminal court sentenced civil society activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim in absentia to two years in prison plus a fine for “harming the reputation of Egypt abroad,” now the Egyptian media reports that the courts have agreed to hear another suit seeking to strip Saad of his nationality. There are so many things wrong with these decisions that it is difficult to know where to start.

Topping the list, of course, is the rich irony that it is these very decisions that harm Egypt’s image far more than Saad has ever done. Then there is the fact that these are among the ridiculous third-party cases allowed by Egyptian law, in which the charges are brought not by an injured party or even by government prosecutors but by sleazy lawyers loosely affiliated with the ruling party. Such third-party cases often become truly ludicrous, for example when a third party sues—sometimes successfully—to force a divorce between two happily married Egyptians because one of them has done some unorthodox writing and so is considered an apostate who is not allowed to be married to a Muslim. In Saad’s case, the court agreed that Saad hurt the interests of all Egyptians by calling for U.S. military assistance to the Egyptian government to be cut or conditioned unless the country makes progress toward democratization and greater respect for human rights. A strange idea, indeed, about who has Egyptians’ best interests at heart.

There is a silver lining to the judgment against Saad: at least he was convicted of an explicitly political crime, unlike opposition politician Ayman Nour, languishing in prison for nearly three years now on trumped-up forgery charges. While neither Nour nor Ibrahim are causes célèbres in Egypt’s essentially conservative and conformist society, each has enjoyed a mini-resurgence of support recently among young liberal Egyptians, who are finding new ways to express themselves, whether joining Facebook groups, posting comments on the website of al-Masry al-Youm, or singing patriotic songs on the beach at Alexandria. This is no revolution, but it is heartening to see younger Egyptians identifying the regime’s dirty tricks for what they are.

Comments are limited to MESH members and invitees.

One Response to “Egypt embarrasses itself again”

  1. on 06 Aug 2008 at 5:50 am Tamara Cofman Wittes

    Michele Dunne is surely right to note that Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s conviction, unlike the forgery conviction of opposition politician Ayman Nour in 2006, has a “silver lining,” in that Saad was “convicted of an explicitly political crime.” Indeed, the profligate prosecution of that category of crime called seditious libel is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. (While seditious libel remains on the books in the UK and other places, it is rarely enforced.)

    In fact, with Saad’s preposterous conviction on this latest charge, Egypt is becoming a world leader in using seditious libel prosecutions to shut down public discussion of government affairs, and control what locals (if not the rest of the world) learn about what the government says and does. The chilling impact of seditious libel laws is so glaringly obvious that Mubarak himself promised Egyptians during his 2005 re-election campaign that he would change the laws to remove prison sentences for libel—Egyptians are still waiting for fulfillment of this (and other) promises. Seditious libel actions have been used in the years since 2005 to cut off discussion of government corruption, the health of the president, and other issues of fundamental and legitimate concern to Egyptian citizens.

    Seditious libel prosecution is by its nature a rearguard action, and a desperately ineffective one at that. In an era of globalized communications, only the most relentlessly repressive governments can truly control what their citizens learn about events taking place in their own country. In 2005, when protesters against the constitutional amendments were beaten in the streets of Cairo, Egyptian state television dutifully ignored the story—but Al Jazeera reported it in detail. More recently in Egypt, ordinary people have used web videos, cell phone cameras, and even “twittering” (using a cell phone to update one’s blog on the go) to expose police abuses and unjust arrests. The information cycle is not beyond Egyptian government influence—government-run TV and newspapers still dominate, and legal intimidation does have an impact—but it is beyond Egyptian government control.

    Beyond control for now, anyway. Recent developments suggest that the Mubarak regime, perhaps in preparation for a leadership transition, is deploying new tools to shut down the narrow space available in current media for discussion of political issues. Independent Egyptian newspapers reported last month that the National Democratic Party is considering a draft law that would set up a government committee to monitor and control radio, television, Internet traffic, perhaps even mobile-phone text messages. Egypt led the way in drafting the Arab League’s outrageous “satellite charter” which, in the name of regulating a common resource, gives governments a blank check to shut down local transmitters of satellite channels that air inconvenient content. Egypt has already become the first state to enforce the law, cutting off NileSat’s local distribution of al-Hewar, a London-based channel.

    Some observers have wondered whether Husni Mubarak will end his long and inglorious reign as a Gorbachev figure—preparing his country for a new era of openness—or as Pinochet, holding on ’til the bitter end, no matter what it may cost his countrymen. If this rumored media law emerges as a reality, the answer will be clear.

    The United States government championed Saad during his imprisonment in the early 2000’s, and has had much to say about the injustices inflicted on opposition politician Ayman Nour. But the Bush Administration has been far too subdued in its criticism of these more recent cases of persecution of the press. Nour deserves real justice, to be sure; and having taken America’s words to heart, he deserves American succor. But the rules governing what’s left of free expression in Egypt are also at stake right now, and the outcome of these legal battles will likely have much more impact on Egypt’s prospects for democracy than the fate of one man, however brave. Nour, if he has good fortune, will endure and may even run for president again. But if seditious libel and other persecutions of the press continue, no Egyptian may ever hear about his campaign.

    Tamara Cofman Wittes is a member of MESH.